More students face fight for a seat on school buses
Plans for smaller school buses are being shelved - but a reduction in the number of students guaranteed a seat on services is likely to continue.
Junior Education Minister John Halligan confirmed there would be "no planned programme of downsizing in the coming years except in line with operational decisions of the current scheme".
However, rule changes introduced a number of years ago will continue to whittle away at the numbers eligible for a seat.
Mr Halligan's commitment follows a review agreed in the Programme for Government, after plans came to light to buy smaller buses to reflect the drop in eligibility.
Smaller buses would have left little or no room for thousands of students who qualify as 'concessionary' passengers - individuals who are able to travel if there are spare seats available.
This year, about 25,000 of the 114,000 primary and post-primary students using the school transport scheme travel on a 'concessionary' basis.
The number has increased significantly in recent years owing to the new rules, with many students who are no longer deemed eligible continuing as 'concessionary' passengers.
Rule changes since 2008/09 led to a dramatic drop from 121,000 eligible students that year to 82,000 in 2015/16. The number of concessionary passengers has risen fivefold, from 4,800 in 2011.
The review of the scheme makes two key recommendations, one of which is to maintain the status quo regarding concessionary charges, which Mr Halligan has accepted.
A spokesperson for the minister confirmed he was not accepting a recommendation for a review of routes with a view to bringing about a "significant reduction" in the number of seats available for concessionary passengers.
As well as the review, a cross- party group was set up, and Mr Halligan said he had received a number of submissions with recommendations, some of which could not be pursued on budget grounds,
However, he said he had asked for a further examination of several issues, including the minimum numbers required for the retention of a school bus service and improvements to customer services.
While the threat of immediate and severe cuts to the service has passed, Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne was disappointed that no improvements had been announced.
Mr Byrne said that last summer public representatives across the country were inundated with queries from worried parents whose children had lost their concessionary place on school buses.
"The review has now been published and it proposes no changes to the scheme, which indicates that more children will lose their bus pass in the months ahead," he said.
"The lack of progress in this area to date is deeply troubling."